Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill Oral Submission

The submission below was given via a Zoom call to Members of the Justice Committee on Wednesday the 15th of September 2021, as a follow-up to the Society’s written submission. The submission was presented by committee members Bronwyn Rideout and Mark Honeychurch, and MPs asked questions after the submission was read out.

The Evidence

We often hear of conversion therapy as a thing that happens in the United States of America – controversial figures such as Joseph Nicolosi, and groups like NARTH and Exodus International. So it’s been horrifying to read stories in the news over the years, and especially recently, about New Zealanders who have endured this dubious therapy.

At the NZ Skeptics, we’re all about evidence. There is no good quality evidence that conversion therapy works, and Wikipedia rightly calls it a “pseudoscience”. Not only this, but there’s a lot of evidence that conversion therapy is harmful.

Professional bodies around the world have evaluated the evidence, and broadly agree that conversion therapy should never be used. In New Zealand, the relevant professional bodies consider the practice to be against their code of ethics.

We know there was a study conducted by Robert Spitzer that is often used as evidence for the efficacy of conversion therapy, but Spitzer retracted the study, and later said “I was quite wrong in the conclusions that I made from this study. The study does not provide evidence, really, that gays can change.”

J. Michael Bailey’s 2016 review of the scientific literature concluded that “There is no good evidence that sexual orientation can be changed with therapy, and we strongly doubt it can be.”

A 2017 literature review from Cornell University looked at 47 scientific papers on conversion therapy. Of the 13 papers that were able to come to a conclusion about the therapy, 1 claimed it was successful and 12 claimed it was ineffective or harmful. The review concluded that “there is no credible evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapeutic intervention… There is also powerful evidence that trying to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful.”

The evidence is clear. Conversion therapy does not work, but it is harmful.

The Legislation

The international studies we’ve seen show that most people go through conversion therapy because of their religious belief, and this is often due to pressure from their church. This has also been the case for many of the hundreds of New Zealanders who have been through conversion therapy.

Not that numbers should matter, but we’re at the point now where half of New Zealanders are not religious. There really should be no exemption for religious groups to be able to continue facilitating or offering conversion therapy. We hope that this bill will ensure that any individual – or organisation – involved in providing conversion therapy will be held accountable.

We know that health practitioners are not above making bad decisions, such as offering unproven therapies. For example, some GPs in NZ currently offer their clients therapies such as homeopathy that we know through scientific testing don’t work. It’s not a stretch to imagine that some health practitioners would consider it acceptable to offer conversion therapy. We therefore think it is unwise to give health practitioners any kind of exemption in this bill.

Many countries, such as India, Taiwan, Brazil and Germany – and parts of Australia, Canada and the US – already have conversion therapy bans in place, and Israel and the UK are currently in the process of introducing a ban. Several other countries, such as Argentina, Fiji and Samoa, have a specific ban on health professionals offering conversion therapies. We’re a little behind the curve on this important issue, but it’s great that as a country we’re finally doing something about it.

Given the lack of evidence of efficacy of conversion therapy, and the clear harms it causes, it seems like a no-brainer that we should have a law banning the practice. We hope that this new piece of legislation not only becomes law here in New Zealand, but also that it doesn’t end up being watered down to the point that it becomes ineffective. We hope to see this legislation become something that properly protects those who are at risk from being given conversion therapy, no matter who is organising or providing it. These at-risk people absolutely do not deserve to be told that their sexual orientation, or their gender, is “wrong”, and that they can be “fixed” through the use of a pseudoscientific, damaging treatment.

Skeptic News: 9/11, Billy TK sermons, Despicable Sue Grey and more


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Skeptic News: 9/11, Billy TK sermons, Despicable Sue Grey and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week continues the level 4 lockdown in Auckland where I live. It’s been interesting to watch the numbers and we should be encouraged by the shape of the curve. But still, there are those niggling cases popping up. It does seem unlikely that we’ll be out of lockdown anytime soon.

I’m off for my second jab late this week, so will no doubt be looking forward to a couple of days having a sore arm. Still, it’s a small price to pay for the reassurance that if or when I encounter COVID I’ll be protected as much as is currently possible.

In the last newsletter I wrote you might remember I wrote about a complaint from Evorich. You’ll no doubt be surprised to learn that we’ve not heard anything further from them. Their 5 days deadline lapsed without further communication. Watch this space, I guess! 

Craig Shearer

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9/11 20 year anniversary

 

 

Saturday this weekend marked the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 in the US. Of course, because of time zones it was Wednesday 12th September here in New Zealand when it happened, just after midnight. 

Memories are interesting things. I can call the exact place I was when I heard the news – driving to work just after 7am in Auckland. (I can also recall the exact place I was when I heard the news about the death of Princess Diana.)

9/11 conspiracy theories have abounded and were primarily promoted by the alt-right, many centered around how the buildings could not possibly have collapsed as they did without a controlled demolition, or explosives. Conspiracy theorists confidently displayed the Dunning/Kruger effect in their pronouncements on the topic.

It’s always been a good topic for skeptics to examine, and it certainly sheds light on how people think about such extremely out of the ordinary events. 

For an actual explanation on how the buildings collapsed, The Conversation did a good explainer.

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The news we share

As I’ve written in the past, NZ Skeptics often receive comments in our inbox and people often criticise us for parroting the mainstream media (usually abbreviated to MSM). Recent commenters have criticised us for sharing articles from the BBC, amongst others.

Is this fair criticism? I think not. All sources of information (including NZ Skeptics) have their biases and political leanings, so are never free from error or presenting information in a purely objective fashion.

However, we do try to present credible sources only. 

There’s an interesting website, with an accompanying chart, that shows the major media outlets and how politically skewed they are, and the reliability of their content. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the state of the industry. You can take a look at the chart here.

In our defence, the outlets we typically share are on the more reliable end of the spectrum, and mostly in the centre of the spectrum on the political bias axis. 

Speaking of political bias, there’s a perception out there that academia is full of left-wing liberal voices, and conservative voices are being “suppressed”. I came across a good video recently which nicely demolishes this argument.

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Billy TK is a religious minister!

Billy Te Hakiha is in the news again. You’ll recall that he was recently arrested, with his “partner in crime” Vinny Eastwood, for violating the lockdown, and holding a protest. Billy and Vinny spent some time in jail, but are now out on bail awaiting trial. 

The bail conditions prevented them from communicating with each other, and prevented access to the internet. 

This past week, they appeared in court (virtually) and BIlly now has limited access to the internet again – because he’s a religious minister, and has now been allowed to resume his online “religious sermons”.

I took a quick look at his “sermon” he gave on Friday afternoon as a Facebook Live event (I guess sermons aren’t just restricted to Sunday church services anymore!). While referencing the bible, the parts I heard quickly pivoted to “freedoms”. 

“And what we’re having today in this new type of government system, we have an Egyptian type system… This new Egyptian system, the same system that’s  in the Bible here, that we’re talking about is that’s wanting to kill people, restrain them, take away their rights and freedoms is the same type that we have today imposing tyranny on us.”

I think maybe the judge was a little naïve to think that Billy wouldn’t use his sermons to just push his conspiracy theories. I wonder whether he’ll be monitored as to how he’s using these opportunities.

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The despicable Sue Grey 

I’ve written in the past about Sue Grey, the lawyer and past candidate for The Outdoors Party. She’s an out and out conspiracy theorist and her Facebook page is a magnet for the most rabid anti-vaxxers.

Yesterday she posted about the tragic death of a young woman at an Auckland secondary school, claiming (without evidence) that the death was a result of the COVID vaccination.

The post has since been taken down after it was inundated with comments critical of Grey, but it’s been reported that the parents are extremely distressed by the posting, and have noted that their daughter’s death was not connected with vaccination. 

The contents of the post have been echoed around the world on various dodgy websites, and will likely continue to exist there.

Grey’s position on COVID is that the vaccination isn’t safe or effective, and that the government should just be promoting healthy lifestyles and vitamins. This is a pretty privileged position to be able to take from a country that hasn’t been ravaged by the virus. 

It astounds me that her Facebook account is still intact, and that she’s still able to practise as a lawyer. From what I can see, this incident has raised her public profile (not in a good way) and there are plenty of people now complaining to the law society. The society doesn’t exactly make it easy to raise a complaint though – this page allows you to do so, but you need to fill out a PDF then email that back to them. I suspect that that will be enough of a hurdle so that most people don’t bother.

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Bye Peter

In the good news department this week, it was announced that there’s been a shakeup at the Magic Talk network – a radio station that specialised in talkback. 

Peter Williams announced that he was retiring – on very short notice, and as of this week he’s no longer on the air. Whether he freely decided to retire  or not – who knows. But he was a darling of the conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers (including the above mentioned Sue Grey), which was sad to see. Williams had a reasonable degree of respect from Kiwis after decades reading the news on TV. 

Peter’s been replaced by Leah Panapa, who is likely to be a much more moderate voice. And Graeme Hill is returning to nights, which is good news. Graeme is a friend of the skeptic community, previously hosting regular slots with Siouxsie Wiles and Mark Honeychurch to report on skeptical news.

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Conversion Therapy Submission

This week NZ Skeptics submitted our view on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. This bill proposes prohibiting so-called conversion therapies which aim to change a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression. Curiously, the direction of conversion seems to be exclusively in the direction of becoming “straight” or identifying with and expressing the gender which aligns with the genitals you were born with.  

Our submission makes the point that there’s no evidence to show that conversion therapies actually work, and lots of evidence to show that they do harm. 

“As part of our mission to promote evidence-based policy-making and healthcare, the NZ Skeptics continually seek the advice of experts and findings of contemporary research with which to inform our positions on a variety of topics. The evidence is clear that conversion therapy is worse than ineffective, indeed it appears to be outright dangerous; provision of such therapies should be seen by New Zealanders as akin to fraud.”

If you’d like to read our submission, we have put a copy on our website.

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Awards and Bent Spoon

Our annual conference is coming up in November, on the weekend of the 19th – 21. As we’ve previously publicised, we’re holding it in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics. COVID willing, we’ll be having an in-person conference in Wellington, and they’ll have theirs in Sydney.

But, even if the in-person conferences are not possible, we’re additionally offering online tickets. 

At our conferences we traditionally hand out our bouquets and brickbats, and we’re seeking your input. We hand out our Bent Spoon award, and also Bravo awards for journalists, and a Skeptic of the Year award.

Bent Spoon award

Each year the New Zealand Skeptics announces the Bent Spoon Award for the New Zealand organisation which has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking in public coverage of, or commentary on, a science-related issue.

We can all think of publications which run ridiculous and unbelievable stories as a regular part of their material. These are not Bent Spoon candidates. Instead we look for organisations and media outlets that tend to command credibility in the mind of the public, and who should have an accurate approach to information gathering and distribution. They are the ones who are rapped over the knuckles with the Bent Spoon when their professional standards lapse.

Bravo awards

We are also pleased to recognise excellence where it does occur, with our annual Bravo Awards. Each year the New Zealand Skeptics recognise a number of media professionals and those with a high public profile who have provided food for thought, critical analysis and important information on topics of relevance to our interests.

Skeptic of the year

The Denis Dutton Award for New Zealand Skeptic of the Year is given to the skeptic who has had the most impact within New Zealand skepticism. 

We’re seeking nominations for these awards.  Please get in touch either by emailing the committee, or using our contact page.


Coming soon…

We’re excited to announce the combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. We’re holding this in person (COVID willing!) in Wellington and Sydney simultaneously on the weekend of 19th – 21st November.

There will also be the option to purchase a livestream ticket.

The conference will feature speakers from both sides of the Tasman as well as some exciting international speakers.

We’re seeking registrations of interest so that we can gauge interest.

Please visit the registration of interest page (hosted on the Australian Skeptics site) at the following link:
 

Register interest


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Submission on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill

The NZ Skeptics’ Submission

on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill

About us

The NZ Skeptics are a New Zealand/Aotearoa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence-based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. Healthcare decisions are an important part of this ideal, and we strongly support any measures that seek to follow best evidence and help protect consumers from harm. 

Our View

In line with our sister organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom, it is the position of the NZ Skeptics that we support the banning of conversion therapies as outlined in Section 5 of the proposed Act.

‘Conversion’ or ‘reparative’ practices incorporate a wide range of activities that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. In both the past and present, such therapies have included so-called clinical treatments such aslike ice-pick lobotomies, electro-convulsive therapies, and aversion programmes that include pharmaceutical regimens that induce vomiting while church-based organisations utilise exorcisms, and intensive praying sessions (either in groups or one-on-one).

To date, no evidence has been produced in New Zealand or internationally to support the effectiveness of conversion therapies. Instead, the only consistent outcome of the practices listed above is harm and life-long trauma to those who have endured them. Reputable organisations worldwide such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association,  Royal Australian College of Physicians, the NHS, and the United Nations have acknowledged and published similar findings.

The absence of support from these and major regulatory and professional bodies and employers has consequently driven such practices underground. The treatments and their providers are unregulated; neither undergo rigorous and ongoing continuing education programmes or annual auditing, as required of any other professional charged with the care of the minds and bodies of New Zealand citizens.

Religious freedom is not violated when banning conversion therapy. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief stated to British Members of Parliament that the banning of conversion therapy in no way violates freedom of religion under international law because of the state’s obligation to protect the life and dignity of LGBT+ persons.

Our Recommendations

As part of our mission to promote evidence-based policy-making and healthcare, the NZ Skeptics continually seek the advice of experts and findings of contemporary research with which to inform our positions on a variety of topics. The evidence is clear that conversion therapy is worse than ineffective, indeed it appears to be outright dangerous; provision of such therapies should be seen by New Zealanders as akin to fraud.

However, the banning of conversion therapy is not simply a health issue, but one that encompasses personal, religious, political, and societal beliefs and practices about gender diversity and identity; Elements which cannot be appreciated with statistics alone. Ongoing persecution of LGBTQIATakatāpui+ communities internationally is an ongoing concern for our organisation, and we see the presence of conversion therapy in New Zealand as a terrible proof of the insidiousness and persistence of bigotry both within our country and outside our borders. To this end, NZ Skeptics finds it vital to consider the voices and recommendations of persons who are either experienced in matters of conversion therapy, or who have been the targets of such unethical treatments, and place our support behind them.

In general we support the wording of this Bill. Here are our thoughts on the parts of the Bill that we feel need changing to ensure it adequately protects people from harmful conversion practices:

Clause 5

We do not think that health practitioners should be exempt from this Bill. We consider that the caveats in 5 (2) are sufficient to protect health practitioners who are “offering legitimate support or therapy”, and we are concerned that health practitioners could conceivably claim to be offering conversion therapy within their “scope of practice”. As such, this appears to be a loophole that we would like to see closed. We recommend the removal of 5 (2) (a) from the Bill.

We do not believe there should be an exemption for religious people or groups in the Bill, and we hope that MPs will resist any pressure from religious groups for any kind of religious exemption to be added. Similarly, we do not think that it would be appropriate for an exemption for parents to be added to the Bill. We recommend that no further exemptions are added to the Bill.

Clauses 8 and 9

We believe that organisations (companies, charities, societies, churches) are often involved in offering, organising and promoting harmful conversion therapy, and would like to see the inclusion of the ability for charges to be brought against organisations as well as individuals. We recommend the inclusion of organisations as well as people as parties to an offence.

We believe that the inclusion of only imprisonment is inadequate to allow for effective sentencing. We would also like to see a fine added, to give judges more options for choosing an appropriate sentence for the offending, and for organisations we would like to see the inclusion of appropriate sentencing options, such as the removal of charitable status. We recommend the addition of more sentencing options, such as fines.

Clause 10

We think that clause 10 is important, and that consent should not be considered a defence in this piece of legislation. We recommend that clause 10 is kept in its current state.

Clause 12

We believe that the requirement of clause 12 for consent from the Attorney-General before prosecution can occur is an unnecessarily high bar. Our understanding is that Attorney-General consent is usually required for laws where there is a significant risk of misuse of the legislation. This does not appear to be likely to be the case for a conversion therapy law, which is designed to protect minority groups who are at risk. We recommend the removal of clause 12 from the Bill.

Other

We believe that monitoring and feedback are important, and that for new legislation to be effective, it should include a review process. For example, it would be good to see this law, when enacted, go through a review of the process and its effectiveness within its first five years, and to allow for amendments as necessary as a result of the review’s recommendations.

Thanks

Finally, we would like to gratefully acknowledge the efforts of Shaneel Lal and InsideOut in their campaign, and support the important work they have done in this area.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on this important piece of new legislation.

Skeptic News: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword


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Skeptic News: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword


During lockdown, the Wellington Skeptics in the Pub group have been meeting online every week. It’s been great to be able to continue our social meetings, but I also think it’s a good way to keep us all sane! That connection of being able to chat and have a fun social time with others seems to be really good at helping with the feelings of isolation and worry that lockdown can bring to some of us.

At our meeting just over a week ago, someone mentioned that they’d been reading up on “theological noncognitivism”, and wondered what everybody thought about the idea. Of course, we were all at our computers (after all, it’s a Zoom meeting) and someone shared the link to the Wikipedia page, so everyone immediately jumped on the page and started reading. After a few minutes talking about the idea that concepts of god may be necessarily nonsensical, someone noticed a much more interesting sounding idea at the bottom of the page: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword.

Of course, we all loved the name of this philosophical razor, so named because a laser sword is supposedly sharper than a razor. If you’re interested in understanding this idea, that it’s futile to argue over something if it can’t be tested, I can highly recommend reading the original article written by Alder – it’s not only erudite, it’s also very funny. And Alder’s article ends with an important warning worth heeding:

“While the Newtonian insistence on ensuring that any statement is testable by observation (or has logical consequences which are so testable) undoubtedly cuts out the crap, it also seems to cut out almost everything else as well. Newton’s Laser Sword should therefore be used very cautiously.”

All of this is a very long-winded way of not only introducing this week’s newsletter, but also to invite all of you, wherever in the country you are (or overseas), to join our Wellington Skeptics in the Pub meetup group and RSVP for our next weekly online meeting. I’ll be there, with a beer or two, and if you’ve been to any of our events or conferences over the last ten years or so you’ll probably recognise some of the others there as well. We’re a welcoming group, so come along and join us if you find yourself at a loose end on Friday evening.

Mark Honeychurch

My intellectual contribution to the conversation was to change my Zoom background to a picture of Sir Isaac Newton with a flaming laser sword.

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Don’t take Horse Dewormer

Obviously as skeptics we’re pretty clued up on the idea of not using unproven therapies, especially when there’s positive evidence that they don’t work. It’s been apparent for a while now that the evidence for Ivermectin as a COVID treatment or preventative is not very good, and it’s been sad to see how many people don’t seem to care about the lack of evidence and are taking it anyway.

There’s been so much in the news about Ivermectin recently, given that it seems to have really reached a tipping point for those who are looking for an alternative to masks, vaccines, and other science based answers to our pandemic, that I figured I’d just summarise the news with a paragraph or so for each of a few stand out stories:

Joe Rogan, an influential podcaster who hosts a popular podcast on Spotify, has contracted COVID and has said on his podcast that he’s taking Ivermectin. However, he’s also taking monoclonal antibodies, prednisone, a NAD drip and a vitamin drip, some of which might actually be effective in helping him fight the virus. My money is on Joe proclaiming Ivermectin to be a miracle drug once he’s beaten the virus, but I think it’s worth heeding Joe’s own words when it comes to whether we should trust anything he says:

“I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron, and I’m a cage-fighting commentator who’s a dirty stand-up comedian… I’m not a respected source of information – even for me.”

Merck Sharp & Dohme, who sell Ivermectin in New Zealand under the name Stromectol, reported that they have been seeing “unusually high buying patterns” of Ivermectin recently. Medsafe has also reported an increase in attempts to import Ivermectin – 100 of 114 consignments of Ivermectin destined for New Zealand this year have been turned away by Customs after consulting with Medsafe.

Ivermectin poisonings in the US are on the increase, as an inevitable result of both an explosion in use of the drug and a large number of people self-medicating. The National Poison Data System reports that the number of “exposure cases” has jumped in the last month, and a lot of this is coming from people who have been buying a version of Ivermectin which is formulated for treating animals rather than humans. However, as skeptics we should always be wary of false news, even when it fits our existing narrative – and in this case it turns out that the recent report from a doctor in Oklahoma that hospitals are turning away gunshot victims because of the lack of beds due to the sheer number of Ivermectin poisonings is false. The local health system has said:

“Dr. McElyea has not worked at our Sallisaw location in over 2 months. NHS Sequoyah has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin. This includes not treating any patients for ivermectin overdose. All patients who have visited our emergency room have received medical attention as appropriate. Our hospital has not had to turn away any patients seeking emergency care.”

One change I’ve been happy to see recently is the number of news agencies who have moved from just using the drug’s name, Ivermectin, to instead describing the particular formulation that many people in the US and elsewhere are buying – horse dewormer. As much as this might feel like a low blow, I think that if talking about horse dewormer causes some people who were previously unsure about taking this medicine to steer clear of it in the context of COVID, that’s a good thing.

Of course, all of this is not to say that Ivermectin isn’t a useful drug – it absolutely is. The discoverer of Ivermectin was awarded a Nobel prize in 2015 for his work, and the drug is listed by the World Health Organisation as an Essential Medicine for humans. But taking it for a condition where there’s no evidence it will help, and a clear risk of dangerous side effects, is not a good idea.

I’ll leave the last word to the US Food and Drug Administration, who said on twitter a couple of weeks ago:

“You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”

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The Satanists are doing god’s work

Texas has recently introduced a draconian new abortion law, one that feels not only perverse (in that it allows for civil lawsuits where anyone can sue those who are involved in providing abortion services), but also seems to be yet another attempt to test the Supreme Court’s willingness to overturn Roe v Wade (the landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion that has allowed for legal abortions in the US for many years). And, so far, it seems that the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, is willing to court this kind of testing of the waters.

However, The Satanic Temple are doing what they can to help women in Texas who require abortion services. They have applied for a religious exemption that would allow them to purchase and distribute abortion pills to their members. It’s a weird way of going about trying to push for a change in law, but it’s far from the first time The Satanic Temple has attempted to use this kind of tactic to do good. I for one have been a big fan of their work for a while now.

The Satanic Temple has used some interesting tactics in the past to fight against religious privilege in the US. They have erected statues to baphomet on government property, as a way to force the hand of those who erected statues of the Ten Commandments, and they’ve also pushed for the inclusion of Satanic prayers to open state and city political meetings.


Other projects have included “Menstruatin’ with Satan” (a menstrual product drive), “Educatin’ with Satan” (including several after school Satanist clubs and a Satanist colouring book, as a way to challenge the legitimacy of Christian after school clubs), and a Pink Mass (at the grave site of Fred Phelps’ mother). And the local New Zealand Satanists have even joined in, running Soles for Satan (raising money to buy socks for those in need) and Blood for Satan (a blood drive).
 


It’s obvious that The Satanic Temple is being used by its members as a tool to fight for religious equality, ensuring that the privilege often afforded to Christianity in western countries, especially the US, is challenged wherever possible. Rather than argue for Christian privilege to be revoked, the group argues for inclusion – that their Satanist beliefs are promoted alongside those of Christian groups by government organisations. I’ve even taken a leaf out of their book in the past, and organised a counter-protest when the Jesus for NZ group were arguing on the lawn of parliament that the name of Jesus should be re-added to the parliamentary prayer. Instead of us protesting for the status quo, we carried signs arguing for the inclusion of all gods in the prayer. After all, if Jesus is able to get a mention every day in our parliament, why shouldn’t Ganesh, or Thor, or Cthulhu?

If you’re still in doubt about The Satanic Temple, here’s a copy of their seven Tenets, which I honestly find hard to fault:
 


I – One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.

II – The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.

III – One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.

IV – The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.

V – Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.

VI – People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.

VII – Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.


The last tenet I especially like, as it seems to me to be a direct challenge to the claims of major religions that their unchanging rules should be followed whatever the cost, and however much our understanding of the world may change.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Satanic Temple and what they do, there’s a great documentary on Netflix called “Hail Satan?” that you can watch:


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NZ Skeptics Awards

We’re currently looking for nominations for our annual awards. Specifically, we have a Bent Spoon award for whoever has “has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking” over the last year, Bravo awards for journalists who have done good skeptical work, and a Skeptic of the Year award for someone in New Zealand who’s been active in skepticism and fighting the good fight against nonsense.

You can see more details, including previous years’ winners, on our website:

https://skeptics.nz/awards

Feel free to respond to this email with any nominations you may have, and I can add them to our list. Thank you!

 


Coming soon…

We’re excited to announce the combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. We’re holding this in person (COVID willing!) in Wellington and Sydney simultaneously on the weekend of 19th – 21st November.

There will also be the option to purchase a livestream ticket.

The conference will feature speakers from both sides of the Tasman as well as some exciting international speakers.

We’re seeking registrations of interest so that we can gauge numbers.

Please visit the registration of interest page (hosted on the Australian Skeptics site) at the following link:

Register your interest


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


Twitter

Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

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Copyright © 2021 NZ Skeptics, All rights reserved.

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Skeptic News: COVID update, and more from EvoRich


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Skeptic News: COVID update, and more from EvoRich

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week our COVID lockdown continues, and I’ve some updates on that. And we got an email from EvoRich – details on our response below.

Wishing you a great week surviving lockdown, whether it’s level 4 or 3. Stay safe!

Craig Shearer

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COVID update

The COVID Delta outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand continues, with Auckland (where I live) and Northland being remaining in level 4 and the rest of the country moving to level 3 from Wednesday 1st September.

With level 4, everybody is meant to be staying in their homes to avoid exposure to others, but, in my observation of things, there are plenty of people out and about “exercising”. Apparently, exercising also extends to sitting down and taking a break, or stopping to talk to others, often maskless. Sigh! As we’re advised, we should all be acting as if we have COVID – only leaving our homes for essential shopping and some exercise.

As I write this today (Sunday), there are 83 new cases in the community. These appear to be a combination of transmission within bubbles – so people who are already identified as cases infecting others within their bubbles – and infection of essential workers at their shared workplaces. While the transmission within bubbles seem unavoidable, the transmission between essential workers is worrying, and likely to prolong the lockdown.
 

John Hart (@farmgeek on Twitter) has been keeping track and graphing the daily numbers. It’s nice to see that we appear to be “flattening the curve” though not as fast as some would have hoped. Though, perhaps the flat part will run for longer than hoped because of ongoing transmissions as mentioned above.

Unfortunately, the situation in Australia is getting worse, with 1,218 cases reported in NSW today. They have reported another 6 people dead, but over 800,000 people received a vaccine dose. Over the ditch they’re aiming for 70% of the adult population being vaccinated then they’ll lift restrictions.

A 70% vaccination rate is still woefully low on a population basis. I hope that we’re aiming higher.

The reality is that with the Delta variant being so infectious, once we open up again it’s likely that everybody will be exposed to it (or yet another variant!) at some point. When this happens it’s going to be painfully clear the difference between those who have been vaccinated, and those who decided to take the risk and remain unvaccinated.

I know I’m generally preaching to the converted, but the  vaccine is safe and effective, with serious side effects being very rare. And the rare side effects and also those of COVID itself, so it’s far less risky to be vaccinated than to take your chances with COVID.

Mask exemptions

The anti-vaxxers and general “freedoms” bunch think they’re being clever. It’s now mandated that you must wear a mask when visiting a supermarket, unless you have an exemption.

Well this week, a woman in her 20s refused to wear one when visiting a supermarket. She produced a mask exemption document, which happened to be forged. The police turned up and arrested her. Charges are being considered under the Crimes Act.

An unfortunate death

You might remember back in May a high-profile BBC presenter – Lisa Shaw – died of a brain haemorrhage caused by a blood clot.

It’s now been investigated by a coroner in the UK and confirmed that Shaw’s death was likely a result of complications from the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine she’d received 3 weeks prior.

This really is a sad case, but will likely be used by anti-vaxxers, as a high profile case, to try to scare others away from taking vaccines. 

Speaking of which…

Endless anti-vax “freedoms” promotion by VfF

As I’ve previously written, I keep an eye on the Voices for Freedom email channel. Over the past week they’ve been running “Freedom TV” everyday, trying to draw in new viewers, and even providing an email “template” with which to invite your unsuspecting friends down the rabbit hole with you.


Westland Mayor

In the past I’ve resisted poking fun (really, I have!) at some prominent individuals who come out with nonsensical, ridiculous pronouncements. But sometimes, it just gets to be too much.

This week, Bruce Smith, the mayor of Westland told us that he was sick of hearing from health experts about COVID -19, and thought business leaders should have more say!

He also has claimed that we should learn to live with COVID, just like our grandparents lived with Polio. 

Luckily, Twitter user Richard Hills did a little research and uncovered the reality of NZ’s past Polio outbreaks…



And, to top it all off, it seems that Bruce denies climate change, claiming that “The climate’s been changing ever since I’ve been a kid”.

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Image: Sketchplanations

The Streisand Effect

Most skeptics will be aware of the Steisand Effect – so called because of the unintended consequence of trying to suppress information – which happened to Barbara Streisand back in 2003 when she tried to suppress pictures of her Malibu mansion. 

You might recall that back in May, Mark Honeychurch wrote about a company called EvoRich, warning about Kiwis being involved in a possibly risky multi-level-marketing (MLM) scheme.

Well yesterday we received a document from EvoRich, from the highly professional email address [email protected]

 


The document, not even from their lawyers, was a Microsoft Word document. Word documents always make interesting reading if you go to the Info tab.


OK, so a couple of Russian names, confirming Mark’s writing about the company originating in Russia. Interestingly they began the document on the day we published the newsletter, but didn’t send it until yesterday. I wonder what triggered that.

Another interesting point – the Company entry “SPecialiST RePack” points to a “cracked” version of Microsoft Word being used to author the document. I’m sure all legit companies use cracked software versions! (Incidentally, it’s best practise not to send original documents out – best to convert them to PDF first.)

They’re not happy with what we wrote though. They claim that they’re not an MLM:
 

We are not MLM, because we have neither registration fee, nor dividends paid from lowers (sic) levels to upper ones.

There are technical definitions of MLMs but it would appear that their members spend a lot of time trying to recruit their friends and associates into the business. This is a classic characteristic of an MLM.

However, should it be that they’re not technically an MLM, so be it.

Mark reminded our readers in the initial newsletter that our Financial Markets Authority (FMA) warned about EvoRich being a potential scam. So, we’re not the only ones to think that.

They also complained that Mark used the wrong email address when trying to notify them about their insecure site.
 

Please be informed that we have 24/7 support desk, which can help you to solve any technical problems, including security. The Ethics Department consider only conflict issues, which violate the Ethics Code.

They complain that:

Please note that the abovementioned publication bears the hallmarks of Defamation, which, under the Delaware Law, is a false statement that does not show and reflect the image of International Marketing Community INC in a favorable light.

The Delaware address is interesting. It would seem that the address is essentially used as a “convenience” address – to give them a presence in the US without actually having to have proper offices. 

They have requested that we substantiate our claims – the main one being that they’re an MLM when they’re not, and that we publish a “contradiction” – presumably a retraction – and delete the original article.

They threaten:
 

In case of failure with the above request, the Company of International Marketing Community INC will apply to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), as well as judicial and other regulatory authorities in order to protect its reputation and name under the Delaware Law.

All very interesting.

Anyway, I decided to go do some digging myself, to check out what Mark had discovered and see what my impressions of the company were.

My first stop was to try to look at their website. The site is in Russian, but Google Translate allows me to see it in English. The site makes a variety of claims, but doesn’t really provide any detail as to how the company works, or how it makes money.

So, next stop was to search for their presentations on YouTube. I found this video which I began watching. The video is introduced by a woman based in South America. But the video then goes continues with a presentation about EvoRich from a person with a Kiwi accent.

The video revealed that the company has a variety of business ventures, including selling financial training, running “Edu Cafe” businesses, and running crypto-currency investment schemes. 

The video later revealed that the presenter with the Kiwi accent was Andrew Hawkes, who is based in Australia, living on the Gold Coast.

Now, the name Andrew Hawkes rang a bell with me. I have a local acquaintance who I’m friends with on Facebook. I’ll call him Greg (not his real name). He seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer. I’ve recently responded to some of his posts, trying to set the record straight about COVID and vaccines. One of those posts was pretty long-winded, but one of his friends, Andrew Hawkes, popped up in the discussion, spouting all sorts of typical anti-vax talking points.

I looked up Andrew Hawkes on LinkedIn. 


Oh, there he is! At the Academy of Private Investmen  (sic).

So, next stop was to look him up on Facebook. I found his profile, and confirmed his mutual friendship with Greg described above. I now understood the connection.

About three years ago Greg was posting on Facebook about this amazing investment opportunity – Skyway Investments. At the time there were many, including me, who tried to warn him about the nature of the investment, and that it was probably a scam. At the time, the FMA was warning people about it. Greg was adamant that this was going to make him rich, and that others should join him. Three years on, I see little evidence that the “investment” has panned out.

So, it seems highly likely that Andrew Hawkes was the vector for introducing Greg to Skyway – now EvoRich (and also NEEW – New Economic Evolution of the World).

Come for the investment advice, stay for the anti-vax and conspiracy theories!

Scrolling through Andrew Hawkes’s page on Facebook I came across a Facebook Live video he recorded this past Saturday morning. I thought it would be good to get some insight into what he’s promoting by watching his video. Contrary to my expectations about investment advice, what I got was a video full of conspiracy theories and anti-vax messages.

According to Hawkes:
 

“If you want to go out, and get an experimental shot from a known corrupt industry, then go for it, have at it, but don’t expect others to blindly follow you when they’ve actually done the research themselves, when they actually looked into it, when they’ve actually listened to scientists who are not being paid by the people who are pushing it…”

He then went on to talk about the Australian Census that’s currently underway, and spouted some astounding nonsense about official government documents being addressed to people with their names in ALL CAPS, and that being a separate legal entity to the person being addressed.

Hawkes then talked about COVID never having been isolated, that the Delta variant hadn’t been isolated, that COVID is a hoax, that it’s all to do with the UN and Agenda 21 or Agenda 30.

He carried on to talk about the government taking people’s guns away – referencing the Christchurch Mosque massacre of 2019.

Finally, he thinks that some of those getting the COVID vaccine are getting placebos (seemingly a misunderstanding of the original RCTs), that being vaccinated would allow keys and magnets to stick to your arm, and finally promoting Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine. 

He claimed people should “think for themselves” – ironic since he was just regurgitating standard anti-vax talking points!

So, that’s Andrew Hawkes – high profile EvoRich promotor for the Australia/New Zealand region!
 

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Dr Dan

Finally this week, and related to the Streisand Effect above, comes the tale from David Farrier, of the popular Webworm blog.

Recently, David wrote about a certain doctor in Auckland at an Integrative Medical Centre, promoting alternative COVID treatments including hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and hydrogen peroxide.

Dr Dan didn’t like what David wrote, so got his lawyers to send a cease and desist letter.

I’ll let David tell the tale – it’s a great read!

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Coming soon…

We’re excited to announce the combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. We’re holding this in person (COVID willing!) in Wellington and Sydney simultaneously on the weekend of 19th – 21st November.

There will also be the option to purchase a livestream ticket.

The conference will feature speakers from both sides of the Tasman as well as some exciting international speakers.

We’re seeking registrations of interest so that we can gauge interest.

Please visit the registration of interest page (hosted on the Australian Skeptics site) at the following link:
 

Register interest


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: Careful Now


96

Skeptic News: Careful Now

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Careful Now


 

It feels like it was inevitable that some of the conspiracy theorists, or “freedom fighters” as they call themselves, would end up protesting our latest level 4 lockdown. I’m not surprised that their shared delusion that lockdown is just a ploy by the government to permanently remove our freedoms would cause them to risk the health of all of us. But it has been disappointing to see a few hundred people around the country gathering to protest at a time when we’ve all been told to stay at home to limit the spread of a deadly disease.

The first protests happened at midday on Wednesday, barely 12 hours into lockdown. People were protesting outside the TVNZ building in Auckland, as well as in Tauranga and Christchurch. At the Auckland protest, Newsroom reports that one protester was holding a sign which said “Down with this sort of thing”, Although the article doesn’t mention it, this sign is from a scene in the classic TV show Father Ted, and it makes me wonder if maybe at least one attendee at the protest was just there to poke fun.



So, without further ado, let’s start this evening’s newsletter by looking at what happened this week with our conspiracy theorist friends, and then look into some of the more interesting fallout from these events.
 

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Lockdown Bingo

The not totally surprising result of these protests is that the police have been arresting protestors. However, they’ve not tried to arrest everyone, or to pick up just those who are the loudest or the most aggressive. Instead they have been carting away key members of the conspiracy/fringe movement.

As I’ve watched this happening, I’ve imagined myself marking off squares on a conspiracy bingo card. I have to assume that the police have been well briefed. They appear to know full well that many of those they’ve arrested are part of the New Zealand conspiracy version of the “Dirty Dozen”, and that their arrests are likely to reduce the likelihood of future protests being organised.

The Auckland protest on Wednesday was arranged by Billy TK (ex co-leader of the Advance NZ political party) and Vinny Eastwood, (who was until recently a prolific YouTube video creator). I say “was”, because due to the sheer amount of nonsense Vinny posts to YouTube he’s recently had all of the content deleted on all of his YouTube channels (he had several backups, in case he was moderated, but it’s all gone now). Whereas Billy tends to stick to talking about the evils of the UN, Vinny seems to have no discernment when interviewing people and promoting their views, and has talked with anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, lizard people believers, UFO cranks, germ theory deniers and much, much more.

(As I’ve mentioned before, we had Vinny speak at one of our conferences a few years ago. I always find it fascinating to give space for one of the people we usually battle to speak to us, and from the feedback we’ve received from conference attendees people tend to be very hot or cold on this one. Can anyone guess who our contentious guest might be for this year’s conference?)

Anyway, Billy TK was speaking at the protest on Wednesday when, about 45 minutes into the event, the police suddenly moved in and arrested him – and Billy was kind enough to live stream his arrest to Facebook. Billy’s arrest was closely followed by Vinny Eastwood’s. Whereas Billy went somewhat quietly, Vinny was much more vocal and audibly distressed when he was taken away – asking the crowd to protect him, and pleading that he has a wife and child at home.

Although nobody was arrested in Christchurch on Wednesday, Thursday was a different matter. Adam Nuttall and Kyle Chapman were both picked up while protesting on the Bridge of Remembrance. Adam is (yet another) video creator who promotes a variety of people’s weird and wacky views, whereas Kyle is an odious far-right character – I’ll let Wikipedia fill you in on the details.

Liz Lambert, who has been publicly coaching deluded people on how to make themselves exempt from paying rates or mortgage by claiming “Allodial Title” on a piece of land, was arrested on Saturday at another protest in Auckland – for this one the organisers tried to claim it was just a group of people exercising in public. Obviously the police were having none of it.

Notably missing were:

Damien De Ment, an American born man who makes videos online about how people should refuse to pay taxes because the government has no jurisdiction over them. Damien had been encouraging people online to protest. He was visited by the police on Saturday and, despite trying to tell the police that he was “not contracting with” them, was served with a letter of warning. After this, he chose not to turn up at the protest on Saturday, and was roundly criticised by his peers for his decision to “chicken out”.

Lee Williams, a British born man who (ironically) makes videos about how immigration is ruining New Zealand, and how Agenda 2030 and He Puapua will take away our rights and give everything we own to Māori. Lee is currently back in the UK, having lost his job, his wife and his bank accounts after posting horribly racist videos to YouTube, and so was about as far away from the Christchurch protests as he could possibly be.

Carl Bromley, a right wing Christian preacher in Christchurch and friend of Lee Williams, who had planned to have his parishioners visit his house yesterday morning for a church service, ended up with four police officers outside of his house ensuring that nobody was stupid enough to actually turn up.

Kelvyn Alp, the presenter of the online conspiracy show Counterspin, was at the protest on Wednesday, but appeared to stay quiet and avoid arrest. Kelvyn has a weird history – having set up a paramilitary organisation in NZ called the Armed Intervention Force, he now runs his Sovereign Citizen obsessed online news bulletin, broadcasting to a small but loyal following.

Some of those arrested (e.g. Billy TK and Vinny Eastwood) have already been released on bail, with conditions such as no access to the internet, no leaving their homes except to meet with their lawyers, and no fraternising with each other. For me, there’s a delicious irony – schadenfreude I guess – to seeing people who risked spreading a disease by ignoring the lockdown order being given their own extended lockdowns, complete with ankle bracelets and personalised police enforcement. Others, like Kyle and Adam, have apparently spent the weekend in jail – which may or may not have a sobering effect on them.

All in all, I think that these arrests are going to have a mixed outcome. For some, like Billy TK, who rely on the internet for their income, I can imagine them at least pausing to consider the consequences of their actions. For others, I think that they may see this kind of civil disobedience, and the punishment it carries, as a badge of honour and a way to martyr themselves. I presume that all of those that have been arrested will at least try to capitalise on their new-found infamy, even if they plead guilty and try to minimise any further damage to their lives from their reckless decisions.

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An alternative legal opinion

Of all the people who spoke publicly about this week’s arrest, Amy Benjamin, a senior lecturer of international law at AUT, was the most surprising to me.

Amy put out a video this week (which has since been removed from YouTube for containing misinformation) arguing that the arrests of protesters such as Billy TK amounts to the government outlawing legitimate protest. She specifically said that “the government has basically criminalised peaceful protest against its policies”. I’d argue that the government has done no such thing. Peaceful protests against its policies are still legal, but temporarily, while we have an outbreak of COVID, we can’t protest in groups in public. There are other ways that people can protest (such as online) that don’t involve the risk of spreading COVID, and people will be able to protest in public again as soon as the lockdown is over.

While she was at it, Amy also threw out the idea that COVID “is easily treated by therapeutics like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine”, and she claimed that the lockdown “probably amounts to a crime against humanity”. In an ensuing video she has claimed that lockdowns are a “silent genocide” of the middle class.

My default assumption was that a lecturer on law would have a somewhat nuanced view of legal issues, but I consider Amy’s views to be somewhat extreme – and this is what took me by surprise. It turns out she has a history of similar claims. For example, she’s previously suggested that the 9/11 attack in the US was a “false flag” operation, and argued that the protesters at the 6th January insurrection attempt in the US (which her son attended) were mainly “peaceful”, and just marred by “a small group” who were in no way encouraged by President Trump.

Amy Benjamin (on the right) at the Auckland anti lockdown protest on Wednesday.

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(Another) Psychic Failure

This one’s a little light hearted, and not overly surprising – Kelvin Cruickshank, one of our most famous local psychics, appears to have failed to have been warned by the spirits about the impending lockdown. Kelvyn had booked a live event for Thursday in New Plymouth, in what turned out to be the second day of our national lockdown. David Chisholm, a member of our Facebook group, managed to take a great screenshot of the event being advertised under a large banner warning of event date changes due to our COVID lockdown.
 

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I’ll leave you all with a timely reminder from some uninformed, dangerous dingus in Wellington that, if you haven’t already done it and you’re 40 or over, it’s probably time to book your vaccination!


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: Snopes, vaccines, and climate change


96

Skeptic News: Snopes, vaccines, and climate change

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

 

This week there’s been a scandal over at the Snopes website. I get my COVID vaccine and we hear more about the situation we’re in with climate change.

Wishing you a good week – stay skeptical and keep promoting science!

Craig Shearer

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I’m sure you’ve come across the fact-checking website Snopes. It’s a popular, and generally quick way to check some internet rumour or news story for its veracity. 

David Mikkelson is a co-founder of the website. It’s emerged, through a Buzzfeed investigation, that Mikkelson who used to write articles for the site plagiarised various other news sites for stories, often copying their text wholesale, or at least paragraphs. The contributed articles ran between 2015 and 2019.

Mikkelson also contributed articles under a pseudonym – Jeff Zarronandia, a practise frowned upon in journalistic circles. He claimed that using a pseudonym was for protection from people who didn’t like the results of the fact checks.

Now I have no journalistic training, but I know that you can’t just copy and paste text without attribution and get away with it. And apparently Mikkelson knew that too – he’s quoted as explaining “You can always take an existing article and rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.” The practise was to just copy and paste the whole text of a news article then go back and change various wording enough to avoid charges of plagiarism. That does seem like a fairly simplistic and dodgy approach.

So, to be clear, Snopes is still doing good work checking facts and being a source of information for shutting down hoaxes. But as always it’s best to check multiple sources, and attempt to locate the primary source where possible.

It is unfortunate that the scandal with Mikkelson will tar Snopes with that same brush. At least in the minds of simplistic thinkers, Snopes is no longer to be trusted. You can expect to have the scandal brought up if you choose to use Snopes as a source for whether something is true or not.

The current writers at Snopes have issued a statement about the plagiarism. It’s sad that they are affected by the unwise and unethical actions of one of their site’s founders.

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I got vaxxed

Last weekend I got my first shot of the COVID vaccine. Given my advanced age of 55 years, I became eligible to book a vaccine, which is done through the “book my vaccine” website. I found the process to be pretty smooth, and they allowed my wife (who is younger than me) to ride my coattails and also receive her vaccine.

There are the obvious jokes that can be made about improved 5G reception, and being magnetic. But, I’ve fortunately had little in the way of side effects apart from a bit of a sore arm for a couple of days. My next shot is booked for the middle of next month. I’m happy to be contributing and being part of the best solution we have to COVID.

Vaccine discussions

This week I’ve also had discussions with some friends/acquaintances at my choir, which I’ve previously reported on.

One of the people I talked to is of fairly advanced age, and unfortunately seems to be a bit on the vaccine hesitant side of things. He asked some reasonable questions, such as what advantage the vaccine had if you could still catch COVID, and still transmit it. I explained that it’s our best line of defence that we have – that the main point of it is that it vastly reduces the consequences of getting COVID – it’s our best chance of not dying from the disease or being hospitalised from serious complications.

I also argued that we are certainly in an unfortunate situation with the spread of the Delta variant. But it’s the anti-science attitudes of some countries (or at least some of their people) that got us here in the first place. Allowing COVID to run rampant, and using half-hearted ineffective responses has allowed the virus to mutate into more contagious versions. 

The other person I talked to was an older woman who was indignant that our border closure and travel restrictions meant that her family living in the UK couldn’t come visit. I opined that it was perhaps unfortunate but the cost of allowing the border to be open would risk many deaths in our country. She responded with the point that we’ve had very few flu deaths, implying that we should trade the flu deaths for COVID deaths so she’s not personally inconvenienced. I politely ended that conversation!

This week we’ve seen announcements from the government following advice from the Skegg Report about how we can slowly reopen the border next year, on a risk-assessment-basis. This does seem to be the best approach. 

But it’s contingent on getting everybody who wants to be vaccinated the chance of doing so. To reopen the border without the protection of a vaccination for everybody who wants it would be ethically pretty dubious. In particular, we need to get kids vaccinated. We’ve seen the effects of “long COVID” on some adults. It would be particularly awful to allow kids to acquire the disease and potentially face a lifetime of consequences.

Naturally there are those who want things opened up more quickly. We only need look across the ditch to NSW where we see the effects of a poorly managed outbreak and the consequences of that. To date there’s been a strong element of luck that the delta variant hasn’t snuck in and spread around Aotearoa/New Zealand. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Of course, once the border does reopen, the protection we have from COVID is predicated upon a large percentage of the population being vaccinated. Modelling of the R0 number for the delta variant shows that herd immunity would require an unfortunately unrealistically high vaccine penetration. 

I used to think that decades into the future people will look and wonder, in horror, why people didn’t follow the recommendations of scientists and health experts. Maybe though, our arc of educational enlightenment isn’t following an increasing path.

Which leads me to the next topic…

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Latest IPCC climate change report

This past week has seen the release of the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on climate change. The report is issued every seven years. It’s become increasingly obvious with successive reports, that the world is in danger of severe consequences of climate change, and it’s increasingly certain (to the point of virtual certainty) that humans are the cause of it.

For some numbers, the last decade has been hotter than any time over the last 125,000 years. There’s now more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 2 million years. We’re currently 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels, and it’s likely that we could hit the 1.5°C point by 2030. And while 1.1°C seems like a small temperature change, it represents a huge amount of additional energy trapped in the atmosphere. We see that played out in extreme weather events, which will become more frequent, and more severe. 

The science has been pretty clear for many decades (and the physical basis for it was known over a century ago). Skepticism of the science of climate change is misplaced. I’m skeptical that we can make meaningful enough change quickly enough to avoid the worst consequences.

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Things that didn’t happen this week

On a lighter note, this week there were two earth-shattering events that were meant to happen. The first was the Global Prayer to End Atheism, and the second with the prediction of Trump’s reinstatement as president on Friday 13th.

Being a skeptic doesn’t necessarily make one an atheist, nor is there a requirement to disavow religious belief, but I have a feeling that most readers of this newsletter and members of NZ Skeptics probably lean in that direction. (And there’s always debate as to what it means to be an atheist – in popular conception it seems to mean that you know for sure that god doesn’t exist, whereas the more technical definition would be a lack of belief in a god or gods.) Anyway, this global prayer was either meant to turn all atheists into Christians or send them to hell. Neither seems to have happened, at least in my personal view of things.

And onto the Trump reinstatement. To be fair, it was only the extreme right wing fringe, mis-informed by the My Pillow founder Mike Lindell, that seemed to cling to these beliefs. To be clear, Joe Biden is still the president, and Donald Trump isn’t. The date for Trump’s reinstatement seems to be continuously pushed back in a similar fashion to religious claims of the second coming of Jesus or the end of the world. I wonder whether there will be future dates announced!


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: The Other NLP


96

Skeptic News: The Other NLP

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

The Other NLP


Recently I’ve been playing with some deep learning software – OpenAI’s GPT-2 and GPT-3, and EleutherAI’s GPT-J-6G. These are NLP algorithms. No, not that discredited garbage Neuro-Linguistic Programming – in this case NLP stands for Natural Language Processing.

The basic idea of these recent efforts in deep learning is to take a piece of software that has been written to guess the next word in a sequence, and train it on a huge corpus of data. It turns out that the internet is a great source of natural language, and a lot of it is very easy to scrape and feed into one of these algorithms. So these pieces of code are trained on lots and lots of internet text.

This training is very processor intensive, needing thousands of hours of time on modern PCs using specialised AI chips on expensive graphics cards. However, once the algorithm has been trained, the dataset that has been created is just a few hundred megabytes in size, and can be quickly loaded into memory – the training only needs to be done once. At this point the software can be used to predict the next word in a sequence, and can keep doing this – creating whole sentences and paragraphs that actually make grammatical and logical sense. We will see below what these general NLP algorithms can do.

The same software can also be fine tuned by giving it a smaller set of data. Using its ability to put together coherent sentences, the software can emulate the data set it’s been fine tuned on. So far I’ve been working on a couple of fun skeptical projects with this, although I have more ideas.

Anyway, it’s probably easiest if I just give you some brief intros and show you the kinds of results I’ve been getting. Enjoy!

Mark Honeychurch

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Hate Speech Submission

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the NZ Skeptics putting together a submission for the Ministry of Justice in response to their new Hate Speech proposals. You can read our submission on our website, but I thought it would be fun to use EleutherAI’s free online GPT-J-6G deep learning model to write a submission for us. I gave the software the first few paragraphs of our real submission, and then clicked the button to guess the next hundred or so words. I then fed the result back into the algorithm so that it could create the next block of text, and so on.

Eventually the text started getting repetitive, and veering off track, but for a while what I was being given by this trained algorithm made sense and looked pretty believable. I didn’t agree with its arguments, but at least it seemed to be creating text that reads like a coherent argument. Please be aware that the pieces of legislation it mentions probably don’t exist – this software is just trying to emulate the kinds of language it’s been trained on, writing in blogs and on forums from all across the internet.

In the text below, everything in bold comes from our actual proposal. The ensuing text that is not in bold, starting at “We also acknowledge that there is a public interest”, is written by the deep learning algorithm. Have a read and see if, like me, you’re more than a little bit impressed with how well it did:

 

NZ Skeptics submission on the Ministry of Justice Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination

 

The NZ Skeptics

We are a New Zealand/Aoteaoroa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. We believe that all government policy decisions should be informed by the best available evidence from relevant groups. We believe that legislation should be based in reality and evidence, rather than on unproven ideas.
 

The Proposals

Our main concern is regarding Proposal five, with the addition of incitement to discriminate to the Human Rights Act.

We accept that inciting others to hate a group of people for their religious belief can be (and has been) a problem in this country, and that it makes sense to have some level of legislation to protect people from this behaviour. 

We also acknowledge that there is a public interest in protecting people from incitement to commit acts of violence and/or to cause harm to others, such as in the case of terrorism.

We believe that the proposed new offences of incitement to discriminate and incitement to hatred are problematic for several reasons, and we are writing this submission to highlight the problems associated with these proposed changes.

Firstly, the proposed offences are deeply problematic because of their language. The wording of the proposal appears to be based on the “hate speech” model, which has been shown to be legally flawed in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The “hate speech” model of lawmaking is based on the idea that “hate speech” is a form of dangerous speech, and therefore should be regulated as a form of dangerous speech. This assumption is based on the idea that, when someone says something that is “hate speech”, it causes people to act on their feelings and to commit violence. It has been shown, however, that this is not true in many cases. Research shows that most people in most countries who commit violence have a different mental disorder (such as schizophrenia) and are more likely to have been victims of violence. It is also shown that people who commit violence are more likely to be victims of violence. The idea that “hate speech” causes violence has also been shown to be false.

To add insult to injury, the proposed offences are vague. They leave too many questions unanswered. What does “discriminate” actually mean? What does “hate” mean? What does “harm” mean? What if someone is just saying something that they disagree with? What if a large group of people are just saying something that they disagree with? How would the “discriminate” be proven? How would the “hate” be proven? How would the “harm” be proven?

As an example of the vagueness, consider the following clause from the proposed Human Rights Act amendment:

(4) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (3), it is unlawful for a person to incite any other person to discriminate against a person or a group of persons or to incite a person to commit any act of violence or to do any act to cause harm to a person or to a group of persons in the context of a public discussion, debate or other public event, or in any other public place or context.

If someone is inciting a large group of people to discriminate against a group of people, such as race or gender discrimination, is that person committing an offence?

If someone is inciting a group of people to cause harm to a group of people, such as to murder a group of people or to burn down a church, is that person committing an offence?

There are many, many questions about the new offences, and it is not possible to answer these questions from the description. The wording of the proposal needs to be changed to make it clear what is meant by the language “incite to discriminate” and “incite to hate”.

Secondly, the proposed new offences are very broad. The Human Rights Act is very broad, and the proposed amendments add little to the breadth of what is already covered. They appear to be largely drafted for the purpose of adding new offences. They do not appear to be drafted to make the law more effective. It would be impossible to draft a bill that is not overly broad.

The proposed Human Rights Act is already quite broad. It bans a number of things that are arguably not discriminatory or hateful, such as incitement to boycott. Even if the Human Rights Act is broadened, as proposed, it would still need to be kept within the bounds of the Constitution.

The proposed offences are also vague. The definition of “hate” (which is not defined) and “harm” (which is not defined) is incredibly broad. Many things that are not discriminatory or hateful can be described as “harmful”. To use an example from the Bible, the book of Isaiah says that Yahweh is “a jealous God and an avenger, who takes vengeance on his adversaries.” This has been used by many people as an example of Yahweh being hateful towards other religions. However, it is not hate speech. It does not incite violence or discrimination against other religions. It simply tells the truth about Yahweh. The book of Isaiah also says that Yahweh will judge his enemies, and that Yahweh will be “a refuge for the oppressed and a refuge in times of trouble”. This is not hate speech. It is stating the truth about Yahweh. 

We believe that the wording of the new offences needs to be significantly changed to make them more clear. In particular, we believe that the words “hate” and “harm” need to be clearly defined.

Thirdly, the proposed new offences appear to be based on the assumption that people can be “protected” from certain ideas. This is an unproven theory. There is no evidence that people can be protected from certain ideas, and this evidence is being ignored.
 


QAnonsense

Using an older algorithm, GPT-2, with a fairly small data set that it had been pre-trained on, I fine tuned this particular piece of software on the entire back catalogue of QAnon posts. Below are 6 QAnon posts – three are the genuine article, and three are fakes created by GPT-2. Can you figure out which is which?
 


#FactsMatter – Truth to Power – Facts = Power of OP.
Who controls the truth?
Who controls the narrative? #FactsMatter #FactsMatter
We know.
Q

 


>>2434941
Think WRAY (yesterday).
Think [RR] (today).
Comms understood?
Do you believe in coincidences?
Q

 


What happens when the public finds out the TRUTH?
What happens when the FAKE NEWS MEDIA can no longer control the narrative (when disinformation is no longer swallowed and/or accepted as auto-truth)?
CHANGE IS COMING.
THE GREAT AWAKENING.
Q

 


>>533922
Think for yourself.
I know you can ‘defend your position’ if you can be ‘truth-telling’ and ‘vocal’ about what you feel.
But this isn’t ‘public opinion.’
These people (or ‘others’) are ‘terrorists,’ and this will ‘kill them.’
We were scared for you. 
You are needed.
Q

 


>>7087382
Note the date of the post – Nov 2017.
Note events happening today.
Reconcile.
News unlocks.
Q

 


Will the MSM push the lie re: Russian collusion?
Prevent if necessary.
Will they have the courage to conduct investigation if found to be Falsifiable? 
Will they have the decency or the ability to report true facts re: collusion?
Will they have the courage to conduct an unbiased investigation if found to have been Falsifiable?
Prevent if necessary.
The Great Awakening.
Q

 


If you’ve played along, and want to know the answer, the first, fourth and sixth are made by the AI, and the second, third and fifth are genuine QAnon posts. I have a project planned for these AI generate posts which I’m hoping will be a little bit of a fun game that shows just how silly QAnon’s posts are. I’ll let you all know as soon as it goes live.

 


Trying to create a new Religion

This one surprised me a little. I fed GPT-2 about a dozen holy texts, with the intention of generating some text that was their distilled, combined wisdom. Instead, what I received each time I ran the generator was an attempt to recreate text from just one of the books I’d trained it on. The results are impressive – although the text generated by deep learning doesn’t always make a huge amount of sense, I think it could be reasonably argued that the same is the case for genuine holy texts!

This is another game you can play along with at home. All of the texts below were generated by the GPT-2 deep learning algorithm – for each of them, can you figure out which holy text they’re emulating? I can’t be sure, but I’ve taken a good guess and included my answers underneath
 


1 Esdr 15:10
Moreover the Lord said unto Moses, If ye speak to any people to speak good, say, Ye shall not speak evil; for they are of an unlawful speech of their own accord.
1 Esdr 15:11
And after the lawgiver said unto the LORD, Speak unto the heathen of the Lord, that they may teach in their own lands of the good word, and that they may not speak wickedly; for they shall never be accepted into their lands of their inheritance, until the day of peace be fulfilled.

 


3:005:008 Thou art the King’s counsellor, and I the King his counsellor, and thy word is truth, and I the King’s counsellor, and thy word is justice; but the words of the wicked and the wicked are in your mouth: and thou shalt not deliver them, and I the King will deliver thee: so tell me the words of the wicked, as the wickedness of my soul: and thou shalt say, If, when thou art king, thou keepest the commandments of my conscience: then thou art my brother, and I shall not be ashamed.
 


20:2 And the people of Judah went down to the place, and went forth to fight against the people of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, before they did so, they did it with great courage; but not of the same courage was they like unto the city of the children of Israel.
20:3 And the people of Jerusalem fought not as the people of Judah did: but they were not of the same spirit, because the LORD of hosts dealt a dispute with the people of Judah.
20:4 And the people of this city did not rise up against the people, neither went to Jerusalem with the battle; but they went down, and returned as they went down, and departed, and went their way.
20:5 Thus they were scattered, with their tents; and it was not according to their numbers for that they were so scattered in like manner; but according to their number they went up against them, and did battle.

 


They had seen his face from their youth, and were afraid. He had shown great power on the field; their fear was not so great. They found a place that they could put distance between the brother and his master in a distance that was ten paces. He was able to make his brother a prisoner, to cut off their right hand, and to put their master to the death by hanging. His brother then went with his master to the field, and told the people that there were two men at the door, and that the brothers had been there four or five minutes.
 


It is my advice therefore to make use of all means whereby I am able to make use of my intelligence in this matter. For I feel sure that the problems that lie before thee, though greater than any before, and worse still, than were before, and yet, though less, are all to be expected from the evil and wickedness that are in his sight.
 


To-day science reveals the Universe to be subject to the law of relativity, thus, in the sense of a flat, constant state, and yet that the Universe also changes for various conditions, – and this also indicates that matter, is not to blame for the existence of God. We do not find a continuity of matter in matter or a succession in matter over Matter. All that exists does so in degrees and that the higher degree of being leads to other degrees and that all that takes place rests upon this higher level of being.
 


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

  1. The Apocrypha
  2. The King James Bible
  3. The Book of Mormon
  4. The Koran
  5. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas
  6. Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures


Any other ideas?

One idea I’ve been given is to find a large set of Deepak Chopra quotes, and use that to train an algorithm to create nonsense quotes talking about quantum realities and the collapse of the wave function. All I need to do now is find a bunch of quotes in a format I can feed to the algorithm.

Do you have any other ideas of what I could feed one of these algorithms?


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

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Skeptic News: The Other NLP


96

Skeptic News: The Other NLP

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

The Other NLP


Recently I’ve been playing with some deep learning software – OpenAI’s GPT-2 and GPT-3, and EleutherAI’s GPT-J-6G. These are NLP algorithms. No, not that discredited garbage Neuro-Linguistic Programming – in this case NLP stands for Natural Language Processing.

The basic idea of these recent efforts in deep learning is to take a piece of software that has been written to guess the next word in a sequence, and train it on a huge corpus of data. It turns out that the internet is a great source of natural language, and a lot of it is very easy to scrape and feed into one of these algorithms. So these pieces of code are trained on lots and lots of internet text.

This training is very processor intensive, needing thousands of hours of time on modern PCs using specialised AI chips on expensive graphics cards. However, once the algorithm has been trained, the dataset that has been created is just a few hundred megabytes in size, and can be quickly loaded into memory – the training only needs to be done once. At this point the software can be used to predict the next word in a sequence, and can keep doing this – creating whole sentences and paragraphs that actually make grammatical and logical sense. We will see below what these general NLP algorithms can do.

The same software can also be fine tuned by giving it a smaller set of data. Using its ability to put together coherent sentences, the software can emulate the data set it’s been fine tuned on. So far I’ve been working on a couple of fun skeptical projects with this, although I have more ideas.

Anyway, it’s probably easiest if I just give you some brief intros and show you the kinds of results I’ve been getting. Enjoy!

Mark Honeychurch

<!–


–>


Hate Speech Submission

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the NZ Skeptics putting together a submission for the Ministry of Justice in response to their new Hate Speech proposals. You can read our submission on our website, but I thought it would be fun to use EleutherAI’s free online GPT-J-6G deep learning model to write a submission for us. I gave the software the first few paragraphs of our real submission, and then clicked the button to guess the next hundred or so words. I then fed the result back into the algorithm so that it could create the next block of text, and so on.

Eventually the text started getting repetitive, and veering off track, but for a while what I was being given by this trained algorithm made sense and looked pretty believable. I didn’t agree with its arguments, but at least it seemed to be creating text that reads like a coherent argument. Please be aware that the pieces of legislation it mentions probably don’t exist – this software is just trying to emulate the kinds of language it’s been trained on, writing in blogs and on forums from all across the internet.

In the text below, everything in bold comes from our actual proposal. The ensuing text that is not in bold, starting at “We also acknowledge that there is a public interest”, is written by the deep learning algorithm. Have a read and see if, like me, you’re more than a little bit impressed with how well it did:

 

NZ Skeptics submission on the Ministry of Justice Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination

 

The NZ Skeptics

We are a New Zealand/Aoteaoroa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. We believe that all government policy decisions should be informed by the best available evidence from relevant groups. We believe that legislation should be based in reality and evidence, rather than on unproven ideas.
 

The Proposals

Our main concern is regarding Proposal five, with the addition of incitement to discriminate to the Human Rights Act.

We accept that inciting others to hate a group of people for their religious belief can be (and has been) a problem in this country, and that it makes sense to have some level of legislation to protect people from this behaviour. 

We also acknowledge that there is a public interest in protecting people from incitement to commit acts of violence and/or to cause harm to others, such as in the case of terrorism.

We believe that the proposed new offences of incitement to discriminate and incitement to hatred are problematic for several reasons, and we are writing this submission to highlight the problems associated with these proposed changes.

Firstly, the proposed offences are deeply problematic because of their language. The wording of the proposal appears to be based on the “hate speech” model, which has been shown to be legally flawed in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The “hate speech” model of lawmaking is based on the idea that “hate speech” is a form of dangerous speech, and therefore should be regulated as a form of dangerous speech. This assumption is based on the idea that, when someone says something that is “hate speech”, it causes people to act on their feelings and to commit violence. It has been shown, however, that this is not true in many cases. Research shows that most people in most countries who commit violence have a different mental disorder (such as schizophrenia) and are more likely to have been victims of violence. It is also shown that people who commit violence are more likely to be victims of violence. The idea that “hate speech” causes violence has also been shown to be false.

To add insult to injury, the proposed offences are vague. They leave too many questions unanswered. What does “discriminate” actually mean? What does “hate” mean? What does “harm” mean? What if someone is just saying something that they disagree with? What if a large group of people are just saying something that they disagree with? How would the “discriminate” be proven? How would the “hate” be proven? How would the “harm” be proven?

As an example of the vagueness, consider the following clause from the proposed Human Rights Act amendment:

(4) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (3), it is unlawful for a person to incite any other person to discriminate against a person or a group of persons or to incite a person to commit any act of violence or to do any act to cause harm to a person or to a group of persons in the context of a public discussion, debate or other public event, or in any other public place or context.

If someone is inciting a large group of people to discriminate against a group of people, such as race or gender discrimination, is that person committing an offence?

If someone is inciting a group of people to cause harm to a group of people, such as to murder a group of people or to burn down a church, is that person committing an offence?

There are many, many questions about the new offences, and it is not possible to answer these questions from the description. The wording of the proposal needs to be changed to make it clear what is meant by the language “incite to discriminate” and “incite to hate”.

Secondly, the proposed new offences are very broad. The Human Rights Act is very broad, and the proposed amendments add little to the breadth of what is already covered. They appear to be largely drafted for the purpose of adding new offences. They do not appear to be drafted to make the law more effective. It would be impossible to draft a bill that is not overly broad.

The proposed Human Rights Act is already quite broad. It bans a number of things that are arguably not discriminatory or hateful, such as incitement to boycott. Even if the Human Rights Act is broadened, as proposed, it would still need to be kept within the bounds of the Constitution.

The proposed offences are also vague. The definition of “hate” (which is not defined) and “harm” (which is not defined) is incredibly broad. Many things that are not discriminatory or hateful can be described as “harmful”. To use an example from the Bible, the book of Isaiah says that Yahweh is “a jealous God and an avenger, who takes vengeance on his adversaries.” This has been used by many people as an example of Yahweh being hateful towards other religions. However, it is not hate speech. It does not incite violence or discrimination against other religions. It simply tells the truth about Yahweh. The book of Isaiah also says that Yahweh will judge his enemies, and that Yahweh will be “a refuge for the oppressed and a refuge in times of trouble”. This is not hate speech. It is stating the truth about Yahweh. 

We believe that the wording of the new offences needs to be significantly changed to make them more clear. In particular, we believe that the words “hate” and “harm” need to be clearly defined.

Thirdly, the proposed new offences appear to be based on the assumption that people can be “protected” from certain ideas. This is an unproven theory. There is no evidence that people can be protected from certain ideas, and this evidence is being ignored.
 


QAnonsense

Using an older algorithm, GPT-2, with a fairly small data set that it had been pre-trained on, I fine tuned this particular piece of software on the entire back catalogue of QAnon posts. Below are 6 QAnon posts – three are the genuine article, and three are fakes created by GPT-2. Can you figure out which is which?
 


#FactsMatter – Truth to Power – Facts = Power of OP.
Who controls the truth?
Who controls the narrative? #FactsMatter #FactsMatter
We know.
Q

 


>>2434941
Think WRAY (yesterday).
Think [RR] (today).
Comms understood?
Do you believe in coincidences?
Q

 


What happens when the public finds out the TRUTH?
What happens when the FAKE NEWS MEDIA can no longer control the narrative (when disinformation is no longer swallowed and/or accepted as auto-truth)?
CHANGE IS COMING.
THE GREAT AWAKENING.
Q

 


>>533922
Think for yourself.
I know you can ‘defend your position’ if you can be ‘truth-telling’ and ‘vocal’ about what you feel.
But this isn’t ‘public opinion.’
These people (or ‘others’) are ‘terrorists,’ and this will ‘kill them.’
We were scared for you. 
You are needed.
Q

 


>>7087382
Note the date of the post – Nov 2017.
Note events happening today.
Reconcile.
News unlocks.
Q

 


Will the MSM push the lie re: Russian collusion?
Prevent if necessary.
Will they have the courage to conduct investigation if found to be Falsifiable? 
Will they have the decency or the ability to report true facts re: collusion?
Will they have the courage to conduct an unbiased investigation if found to have been Falsifiable?
Prevent if necessary.
The Great Awakening.
Q

 


If you’ve played along, and want to know the answer, the first, fourth and sixth are made by the AI, and the second, third and fifth are genuine QAnon posts. I have a project planned for these AI generate posts which I’m hoping will be a little bit of a fun game that shows just how silly QAnon’s posts are. I’ll let you all know as soon as it goes live.

 


Trying to create a new Religion

This one surprised me a little. I fed GPT-2 about a dozen holy texts, with the intention of generating some text that was their distilled, combined wisdom. Instead, what I received each time I ran the generator was an attempt to recreate text from just one of the books I’d trained it on. The results are impressive – although the text generated by deep learning doesn’t always make a huge amount of sense, I think it could be reasonably argued that the same is the case for genuine holy texts!

This is another game you can play along with at home. All of the texts below were generated by the GPT-2 deep learning algorithm – for each of them, can you figure out which holy text they’re emulating? I can’t be sure, but I’ve taken a good guess and included my answers underneath
 


1 Esdr 15:10
Moreover the Lord said unto Moses, If ye speak to any people to speak good, say, Ye shall not speak evil; for they are of an unlawful speech of their own accord.
1 Esdr 15:11
And after the lawgiver said unto the LORD, Speak unto the heathen of the Lord, that they may teach in their own lands of the good word, and that they may not speak wickedly; for they shall never be accepted into their lands of their inheritance, until the day of peace be fulfilled.

 


3:005:008 Thou art the King’s counsellor, and I the King his counsellor, and thy word is truth, and I the King’s counsellor, and thy word is justice; but the words of the wicked and the wicked are in your mouth: and thou shalt not deliver them, and I the King will deliver thee: so tell me the words of the wicked, as the wickedness of my soul: and thou shalt say, If, when thou art king, thou keepest the commandments of my conscience: then thou art my brother, and I shall not be ashamed.
 


20:2 And the people of Judah went down to the place, and went forth to fight against the people of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, before they did so, they did it with great courage; but not of the same courage was they like unto the city of the children of Israel.
20:3 And the people of Jerusalem fought not as the people of Judah did: but they were not of the same spirit, because the LORD of hosts dealt a dispute with the people of Judah.
20:4 And the people of this city did not rise up against the people, neither went to Jerusalem with the battle; but they went down, and returned as they went down, and departed, and went their way.
20:5 Thus they were scattered, with their tents; and it was not according to their numbers for that they were so scattered in like manner; but according to their number they went up against them, and did battle.

 


They had seen his face from their youth, and were afraid. He had shown great power on the field; their fear was not so great. They found a place that they could put distance between the brother and his master in a distance that was ten paces. He was able to make his brother a prisoner, to cut off their right hand, and to put their master to the death by hanging. His brother then went with his master to the field, and told the people that there were two men at the door, and that the brothers had been there four or five minutes.
 


It is my advice therefore to make use of all means whereby I am able to make use of my intelligence in this matter. For I feel sure that the problems that lie before thee, though greater than any before, and worse still, than were before, and yet, though less, are all to be expected from the evil and wickedness that are in his sight.
 


To-day science reveals the Universe to be subject to the law of relativity, thus, in the sense of a flat, constant state, and yet that the Universe also changes for various conditions, – and this also indicates that matter, is not to blame for the existence of God. We do not find a continuity of matter in matter or a succession in matter over Matter. All that exists does so in degrees and that the higher degree of being leads to other degrees and that all that takes place rests upon this higher level of being.
 


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

  1. The Apocrypha
  2. The King James Bible
  3. The Book of Mormon
  4. The Koran
  5. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas
  6. Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures


Any other ideas?

One idea I’ve been given is to find a large set of Deepak Chopra quotes, and use that to train an algorithm to create nonsense quotes talking about quantum realities and the collapse of the wave function. All I need to do now is find a bunch of quotes in a format I can feed to the algorithm.

Do you have any other ideas of what I could feed one of these algorithms?


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


Twitter

Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

<!–


–>


Copyright © 2021 NZ Skeptics, All rights reserved.

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You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp

Continue reading

Submission on Hate Speech Proposals

NZ Skeptics submission on the Ministry of Justice Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination

The NZ Skeptics

We are a New Zealand/Aoteaoroa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. We believe that all government policy decisions should be informed by the best available evidence from relevant groups. We believe that legislation should be based on reality and evidence, rather than on unproven ideas.

The Proposals

Our concern is regarding Proposal five, with the addition of incitement to discriminate to the Human Rights Act.

We accept that inciting others to hate a group of people for their religious belief can be (and has been) a problem in this country, and that it makes sense to have some level of legislation to protect people from this behaviour. 

Our approach is generally to criticise ideas and behaviours rather than people, and our approach is to never intentionally incite hatred of a class of people, even those we disagree with. We tend to single out people who we think are out to scam people and knowingly and egregiously promote misinformation.

We think, however, that even using insults to incite others to hate a religious belief, or to discriminate against people who hold a religious belief, should not necessarily rise to the level of being a crime.

It is important for beliefs to be open to criticism – including through the use of ridicule and insults. Beliefs are different from innate properties of a person or group of people, such as their sexuality, gender, race or national origin. A belief is not an intrinsic attribute of a person, but rather the act of believing is a personal choice. Because of this, there should be latitude for robust criticism of religious beliefs, and of those who choose to follow those beliefs – even if that criticism could be construed as being insulting or abusive, and perceived as inciting others to discriminate or hate.

It is easy to think of examples of religious groups in this country who regularly speak out against the rights of those they consider “immoral”, such as gay and lesbian couples, or those who choose to have an abortion. We do not think that it should be illegal for people to be able to use insults as a way to criticise these groups for example, even if these insults are intended to incite others to discriminate against them. We think there are occasions where groups should be discriminated against, in order to lessen their ability to spread dangerous misinformation. Denying hateful religious groups a platform from which they can speak messages of hate could be argued to be discrimination, but we think that the ability to use activism in this way is legitimate and should remain legal. We would not want to find ourselves being threatened with a lawsuit if we asked our members to boycott a hateful religious group, and used insulting language in order to make our request.

Our worry, also, is that extreme religious groups with whom we disagree, such as those who criticise gay and lesbian couples, might be afforded a different level of shielding from prosecution simply because of their perceived traditional religious roots.

We think that it is important for any legislation around religion and hate speech to differentiate between religious believers and religious beliefs. We would like to see allowance made in legislation for speech that may be considered as inciting discrimination or hatred, when that speech is aimed not at people but at their beliefs. This is especially important when these beliefs are not only wrong but also dangerous or hurtful, such as religious shunning, gay conversion therapy or taking money from the poor. Our ability to criticise these erroneous, damaging beliefs should not be curtailed.

We think that any protections given to religious groups should also be afforded to agnostics, atheists and other non-believers. Especially when it comes to ethnic groups with high levels of belief, non-believing members of those ethnic groups can find themselves targeted by hate speech for their choice to not believe. We see no reason that these people should not be protected by hate speech laws in the same way that religious people will be under the new proposals.

Skeptic News: Thomas John reads again, VfF FB gone, selling out for £10,000 and more…


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Skeptic News: Thomas John reads again, VfF FB gone, selling out for £10,000 and more…

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week I cover another psychic sting, some good news from Facebook and a COVID-denier takedown in the UK, and finally questions around the very existence of viruses!

Craig Shearer

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Thomas John hot-reads again!

We’ve talked about purported psychic medium Thomas John before. He’s a shady character whose real name is Thomas John Flannagan. Previously convicted of stealing security deposits from renters after posting bogus apartment ads on Craigslist, and having also worked as a drag queen, he’s moved on to being a celebrity psychic medium. 

He’s variously known as the Manhattan Medium, The Seatbelt Psychic (in a TV show where he transported people supposedly in a ride-sharing service and gave them readings). If you want to watch the awful show, it’s available on TVNZ On Demand, where he’s referred to as “Internationally renowned medium”.

Recently our friend Susan Gerbic of the Guerilla Skeptics led a sting operation on Thomas John. John recently reached a new low, by running an event targeting children. For USD $400/ticket (about NZD $575) a parent and their child could join a Zoom call for a reading. Little did John know that two of the sets of parents and children on the call were actually skeptics, in a setup designed to expose John’s hot-reading techniques. 

The NZ angle to this is that one of the parents was Sheree, former secretary of NZ Skeptics, and her daughter. Well done Sheree!

The Friendly Atheist blog covered the story, and it was written up in great detail by Susan in Skeptical Inquirer.

Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of true believers who are willing to give the likes of John their money. 

Thomas John, and the whole celebrity psychic industry are a blight on society. As John Oliver, on the TV show, Last Week Tonight, put it:

“…when psychic abilities are presented as authentic, it emboldens a vast underworld of unscrupulous vultures, more than happy to make money by offering an open line to the afterlife, as well as many other bullshit services.”

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Voices for Freedown Facebook Page shut down

In good news this week, Facebook has finally shut down the anti-vax, conspiracy-theory-mongering group Voices for Freedom’s page. They’re upset:

“Facebook cancelled our Facebook page Wednesday, with our page following growing by over 1000 fans a week, thousands of comments, and a monthly reach of nearly half a million people..

We’re not surprised, but it’s definitely a significant blow to both ours and your voice of freedom, and everyone should be outraged…” [emphasis theirs]

I’m sceptical of the claim of half a million people – I’m doubtful that there are that many deluded people reading their messages!

But other groups still exist run by either VfF leaders or their ardent supporters. These include The Health Forum NZ and NZ School Communities Unite, both of which are private groups so it’s not possible to see what they’re talking about unless you manage to infiltrate them.

The Health Forum NZ claims to “discuss the process of Informed Consent and COVID-19 vaccination”. Interestingly, their group has had various name changes, as reported by Facebook:


Amusingly their previous names seem to give the game away as to their real purpose.

The Health Forum NZ is run by Lynda Wharton, amongst others. Wharton is a naturopath and acupuncturist and has featured on the VfF webinars. I’ve seen her name pop up all over Facebook and she’s well known for her anti-vax views. 

NZ School Communities Unite is another private group, run by Aimee Bearda who is one of the leaders of VfF. The group’s purpose is to “ to insure a robust School Governance Policy to protect our children against the intended Covid-19 Immunisation programme in schools”. Why such a group would need to be private isn’t clear.

Voices for Freedom are, according to an email to their insiders, planning on running a campaign this week. They called for donations and, if their latest email is to be believed, have received $50,000 in donations. It saddens me that a whole bunch of people would give up that sort of money.

It will be interesting to see what they do. They claim “the media/gov will hate it”. Watch this space, I guess.

With all their pleas for freedom and avoidance of lockdowns, I would remind them of the terrible situation in Fiji (with 238 deaths so far since the outbreak in April), and the situation in NSW which is far from being under control.

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COVID £10,000 sell out

Speaking of COVID grifters, an amusing take-down has emerged from the UK.Piers Corbyn is an anti-vax activist, and elder brother of the former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

Corbyn is certainly a character that skeptics would find interesting. He ran a weather forecasting company and along the lines of our own Ken Ring, makes predictions based on “The Solar Weather Technique”, which is based upon solar observations. Like Ring, he bases his predictions on historical weather patterns in addition to solar observations (whereas Ring uses the moon), and also claims to be able to predict earthquakes. Needless to say his predictions weren’t particularly accurate. 

He also denies that humans play a role in climate change. 

Of late, Corbyn’s been working to undermine UK efforts to vaccinate its population. He originally declared COVID-19 to be a hoax, blamed Bill Gates and George Soros, then went on to refer to COVID as a Chinese Bio-Weapon, then claimed it to be no worse than the flu.

Anyway, in a delicious prank, a couple of YouTubers Josh Pieters and Archie Manners, claiming to be investors in AstraZeneca  essentially convinced Corbyn to accept £10,000 in cash to stop criticising the AstraZeneca vaccine in his anti-vax communications, and to concentrate on Pfizer and Moderna vaccines instead.

Happily, they managed to swap out the £10,000 in cash for a bundle of Monopoly money before handing it over to Corbyn. 

The YouTube video of the experience is well worth a watch. The story is detailed here

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Are viruses real?

One of the interesting aspects of being part of NZ Skeptics is that we often get contacted by people to espouse views and theories that diverge from the mainstream, evidence-based views on things. 

The latest for us is claims from a New Zealand-based person who claims that viruses aren’t real – that they’re a hoax. You can take a look at the site promoting this nonsense. (http://thevirushoax.net/)

I’m not going to name this person as the communication quickly degenerated into threats of legal action. 

From the communications I’ve had with this person it seems that they’ve latched on to some outliers in the scientific community who promote pseudoscience around viruses – Dr Stefan Lanka is the main culprit, though the site also lists a psychiatrist, medical doctor (who also promotes homeopathy and anthroposophical medicine), and, scraping the bottom of the barrel, a chiropractor.

In researching the topic, I’ve come across articles that actually show pictures of viruses through electron microscopes.  The image above is of the COVID-19 virus, where the spikes can clearly be seen. 

It seems that the person behind this works in the IT industry. I’ve encountered these types of people before – and they’re common in pseudoscience. There’s the Salem Hypothesis which suggests an apparent correlation between those who work as engineers and them being drawn to pseudoscientific beliefs such as creationism, crank magnetism and climate change denial. Perhaps we can add virus denial to the list. Though perhaps the Dunning Kruger effect explains things well too.

Our friend Siouxsie Wiles wrote up a piece explaining how COVID deniers have latched onto Koch’s postulates.

As we often say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you’re going to take on the whole scientific discipline of virology, you’d better have some good evidence to back up your claims. 

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Coming soon…

We’re excited to announce the combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. We’re holding this in person (COVID willing!) in Wellington and Sydney simultaneously on the weekend of 19th – 21st November.

There will also be the option to purchase a livestream ticket.

The conference will feature speakers from both sides of the Tasman as well as some exciting international speakers.

We’re seeking registrations of interest so that we can gauge interest.

Please visit the registration of interest page (hosted on the Australian Skeptics site) at the following link:
 

Register interest


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


96

Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


Okay, so I’m joking here – I actually know how to pronounce the name (it’s said “Nexium”). But it’s obviously a pretentious looking name, chosen for a pretentious, and dangerous, cult. One that thankfully has now been (mostly) shut down. I have a fascination with cults, as they are a particularly dangerous form of erroneous thinking. People can lose their money, friends and even their lives at the hands of an unscrupulous guru or spiritual master. It’s important that the NZ Skeptics, and others, speak out when we see groups taking advantage of individuals in this way.

That brings me to a topic I’m sure most of you will have seen mentioned on the news recently – proposed changes to our hate speech laws. There’s currently a consultation being run by the Ministry of Justice, and they’re looking for early feedback about some changes they’re suggesting that would extend legal protections against hate speech to cover religious groups, as well as other groups such as transgender and gender diverse people. To be clear, my personal opinion is that in general this law is a positive thing – I’m happy with the idea that inciting others to hate a group is not okay, and that it would be good if there were legal protections against this. But, of course, some of the suggested changes aren’t so clear about what would become illegal, and it’s important that the wording of this legislation is as clear as possible. These protections also need to be balanced with our right to critique bad ideas, including those touted by religious groups.

Myself and others on the NZ Skeptics committee will be penning a short submission over the next week or so, and will make it public once it has been submitted. If you have time to read the proposal, and feel that you have a sufficient level of knowledge and expertise to write a reasoned response, it would be great if you could add your voice to the conversation. I’m not going to tell you what to write, but bear in mind that it doesn’t have to be long. Just have a read of the document (it’s about 30 pages long), and answer any of the questions where you feel a skeptical voice is needed.

Mark Honeychurch

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Famous actress jailed for her role in NXIVM

Allison Mack was once famous for her role in the TV show Smallville, a spin-off show about Superman. However, a few years ago she joined a group called NXIVM who promised to help her on the path to enlightenment and happiness. The group pulled in more famous people, including other TV celebrities, the director of What the Bleep Do We Know, and the Bronfman sisters, heirs to the Seagram fortune.

NXIVM ran self-help sessions in Canada and the US, and had a few odd ideas – like the rule that the group’s founder, Keith Raniere, had to be called Vanguard and bowed to, and that people were required to wear coloured scarves to denote their rank within the organisation.

Like many cults, a mythos built up around Keith. He was slated to have one of the highest IQs in the world, a successful businessman, and a spiritual guru. That being said, he once managed to convince the Dalai Lama to visit Albany and endorse his cult – for a large fee.

Keith set up a group for women within NXIVM called DOS – which stood for Dominus Obsequious Sororium. New members were assigned as slaves to senior members, and had to go through an initiation ceremony where they were branded while naked. They had to provide collateral – naked pictures, embarrassing stories, confessions – in order to prove their loyalty. And it was this sub-group that caused the eventual downfall of the cult – when members realised that the branding, which they had been told was a sacred symbol, was actually just a logo that incorporated both Keith’s and Allison’s initials – KR and AM.

When Keith was caught he was hiding in a closet in a rental property in Mexico, and he was subsequently sentenced to 120 years in prison just before COVID lockdown. Some of his followers started dancing for him last year outside his prison window, as a way of showing their continued loyalty, which was a really odd thing to see. But it appears to have started slowly dawning on some of his more ardent followers that he was nothing more than a con man.

Just last week Allison Mack was sentenced to 3 years in prison for racketeering and conspiracy. She recently apologised for her part in the cult – something many senior members have never done. She said:

“I am so sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM. I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man. I am sorry that I encouraged you to use your resources to participate in something that was ultimately so ugly.”

I highly recommend the Uncover podcast for anyone who’s interested in learning more about NXIVM. The creator of the podcast bumped into an old friend just after they had left the cult, and the ensuing recordings do a great job of laying bare what it was like to have been in the group.

This is not very likely to happen to you, but if you ever suspect that a friend might be in a cult, I’d recommend that you try to keep your communication lines open with them. Let them know that you’ll always be available to talk, and don’t push them away by being too judgmental about their choices. If and when they have doubts, and they start to think about the possibility of leaving, having friends like you on the outside who are willing to help support them and listen to them will be an invaluable asset.

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Psychic Kelvin is on tour

Sensing Murder psychic Kelvin Cruickshank is currently touring the country. He’s been down in the South Island recently, visiting Christchurch and a lot of smaller towns, and selling tickets at $65 a pop. Next month he’ll be touring the North Island.

However, Chris Lynch has reported that audience members from one of his first gigs in the South island, in Christchurch, found the event to be “a disappointment”. Apparently his microphone wasn’t working properly, and that as a result he ended up being rude to the audience – calling the town hosting him, West Melton, a hick town.

One audience member said that he was arrogant, and that he was asking a lot of questions. To me, this sounds like someone having a bad time at reading his audience, rather than someone having issues communicating with the spirit realm. If, as skeptics say, psychics employ a mixture of hot and cold reading in order to work with an audience to fool them into thinking that the psychic knows about their lives, it’s unsurprising to hear that psychics plying their trade are going to have good and bad days. And for the bad days, it’s going to be frustrating enough to make a psychic angry, and the psychic is going to have to work harder, asking more questions than usual and having less of a “connection” with their audience. This sounds a lot like what happened in West Melton.

On Kelvin’s official Facebook page, there’s a comment blaming the problem on both lighting and seating issues. Of course, it’s never the psychic who’s wrong. Psychics tend not to doubt themselves – if they did, and they considered that what they’re actually doing is taking money from grieving families in return for lying to them, it would be pretty hard for them to live with themselves. A Sensing Murder special clip, asking Kelvin how he deals with skeptics, is somewhat telling (see the video below).

Kelvin asks “who are we to judge others?”, as if this means that people shouldn’t be judging him for his actions. Well, I’m happy to judge him. What he’s doing is unethical, and cruel. Everyone should make allowance for the opinions of others, especially when their chosen career is one that is as controversial as being a psychic medium. Even if these people have actually fooled themselves into thinking they have a special psychic ability, shutting themselves off from criticism is not a good response when the criticism is that they are exploiting vulnerable people.

Sadly, though, it’s rare for a psychic to voluntarily give up a career they’ve worked hard to build up. It’s much more likely that they’ll either rest on their laurels and disenfranchise their fans by giving lacklustre performances, like it appears Kelvin is doing, or they’re exposed by skeptics in psychic stings like the ones Susan Gerbic runs in the US – and even then it’s likely they’ll still have enough loyal fans that they can continue to make a living from their con.


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When scientists go wrong

Mahin Khatami looks at first blush to be a respectable scientist – she has a long history as a scientist spanning decades, she used to work for the NIH (National Institutes for Health) in the US as a program director, and has not only been published in respectable peer reviewed journals, but has also been a journal editor.

However, I learned of her recently because of a paper Mahin published late last year, “Deceptology in cancer and vaccine sciences”, where she claims that cancer and most other modern diseases are caused by the pharmaceutical industry as a way to sell more medicine. The paper has come to light because the journal of Clinical & Translational Medicine is retracting it.

Sadly other papers by Mahin have not been retracted, despite scientists making complaints to the relevant journals. I went hunting through her publishing history, and found titles such as:
 

Mahin’s overall idea seems to be that vaccines for Polio, HPV, Flu, hepatitis, HPV, meningitis and measles, among others, are used to cause diseases such as cancer rather than protect us from disease. Her papers talk of the creation of dark energy, and the need to balance Yin and Yang. It seems that “big pharma” is using the vaccines to inject us with something that disrupts our body chemistry, and keeps them in business as they sell us the solutions to problems they cause.

It turns out that Mahin is an active member of an anti-vaxx group in the US called SaneVax. Despite the name, they’re anything but sane – rather, they appear to be ideologically committed to the idea that vaccines are evil, and that nobody should be vaccinated. I’m guessing that SaneVax are happy to work with anyone who is similarly opposed to vaccines, no matter how wacky their ideas are.
 


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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